For the first time in four years, Ethan Coen has a new movie. It’s a documentary called Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind and it just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. And for pretty much the first time ever, it is an Ethan Coen movie made without his brother Joel. From their earliest days in the film industry, Ethan and Joel were a matched set, working together to write, produce, direct and often edit their films. In the beginning, only Joel was credited as director and only Ethan was credited as producer because of guild rules, but they were a team through and through.
And then, to the surprise of the film world, that team broke up, following 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Last year, Joel returned, sans Ethan, to direct The Tragedy of Macbeth. And at that time, the rumor was that Ethan had quit moviemaking entirely. But since he’s got a new movie premiering this week at Cannes, clearly that wasn’t true.
So why the split between the Coens? In a new interview with the Associated Press, Ethan Coen that he had quit directing, but not because of any issue with Joel, and more a problem with the fact that the “experience of making a movie” slowly became “more of a grind and less fun” over time.
You start out when you’re a kid and you want to make a movie. Everything’s enthusiasm and gung-ho, let’s go make a movie. And the first movie is just loads of fun. And then the second movie is loads of fun, almost as much fun as the first. And after 30 years, not that it’s no fun, but it’s more of a job than it had been … And the last two movies we made, me and Joel together, were really difficult in terms of production. I mean, really difficult. So if you don’t have to do it, you go at a certain point: Why am I doing this?
As to the open question of whether Joel and Ethan might eventually reunite, Ethan sounded … well, not optimistic (he doesn’t sound optimistic about anything). But he definitely didn’t rule it out, explaining that “none of this stuff happened definitively. None of the decisions are definitive. We might make another movie. I don’t know what my next movie is going to be after this.”
That at least gives you hope that the Coen brothers as a unit might be on a pause, not permanently broken up for good. In the meantime, A24 will distribute Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind later this year.
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